TEEN MENTAL HEALTH & the Vagus Nerve

By Veronica Greene  (Printed in Om Yoga & Lifestyle Magazine MARCH 2019)

Teen Mental Health is at an all-time low, with anxiety disorders reported as the most common mental health condition.

Teen anxiety manifests in a number of different ways including:- Generalised Anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Phobias, Social Anxiety, Panic Attacks and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
While the exact cause is not known, contributing factors are Genetics, Brain Chemistry, Stressful Events and Home Environments.

Anxiety affects everyone and doesn’t differentiate between age, gender, background or social group. It is a part of everyday life and is a normal reaction to stressful events or fearful situations and can in fact help us ‘perform’ or deal with an overwhelming situation. Anxiety triggers the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) or more commonly referred to as the ‘Fight or Flight’ response. Simply put hormones are released to prepare the body to either stay and face the threat or to run in the opposite direction.

Physical changes include dilated pupils resulting in better vision, to assess the situation; increased heart rate and respiration as the body supplies more oxygen to the muscles; trembling as the muscles become tense, ready to respond; loss of skin colour as the blood supply moves directly to the muscles and brain all in preparation for the “fight or flight”.

Incredibly useful response but for many Teens this response is now interfering with their everyday life.

Their body is triggering this response as a reaction to their perceived threat which maybe as simple as getting into school. The threat often triggered by a thought, resulting in an emotion, resulting in a stress response. It becomes a catch 22 situation as the stress response makes them hyper vigilant to the physical changes in their body causing more fear and activating more stress hormones.

Adults, care providers, parents talk freely about the issues and their perceived causes – social media, blue light from computer screens/mobile devices, fashion gone crazy, parents busy working, bad diet, not enough exercise etc.

It’s true that teenagers today live in a very different world to the teenage life their parents lived.

So what is the answer?

The reality is that there is no one path that can lead to a solution but a combination of love, support, space, knowledge and the realisation that they are not alone and not the first to feel this way.

Can Yoga help?
Yes, combined with conventional medicine and other experiential therapies to create a holistic approach between mind and body.

Bessel A. van der Kolk, clinical psychiatrist and author of ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ states that, “Body awareness is a necessary aspect of effective emotion regulation. Learning to notice, tolerate, and manage somatic experience may substantially promote emotion regulation.”

More specifically, there are certain postures in yoga which activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), which is why we experience relaxation or calmness in a yoga class.

The PNS is often referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ system. It’s the polar opposite of the SNS where energy is conserved, the heart rate and blood pressure are lowered and the digestive system is activated.

The PNS is triggered by the Vagus Nerve. The Vagus Nerve is one of the 12 cranial nerves. It’s the longest, travelling from the brain stem to the abdomen. It helps control most of the thoraciac and abdominal organs – including the lungs, heart, espophagus, stomach, intestines & kidney.

There has been a lot of talk and information about the Vagus Nerve in the yoga world and how creating ‘tone’ in this nerve can help us to lead more calm and peaceful lives.

What does that mean?

In layman terms it’s a bit like using weights to develop muscular strength. The more weight we use, the stronger the muscles become.

With respect to the Vagus Nerve, the more we activate it the more proficient the body becomes at engaging it’s ‘Rest and Digest’ system, resulting in the stress response being deactivated. Effectively we are setting up the neural pathways for a calmer life!

So how do we tone it?

Meditation and relaxation techniques are all incredibly useful in helping ease anxious feelings and triggering the vagus nerve. However, in practice, getting teens to lie still can be challenging. Many will fidget or become distracted making the relaxation segment almost impossible. For many who suffer from extreme anxiety, lying still promotes more fear and a sense of panic. Some breathing techniques can cause an anxious teen to over breath thus hyperventilate and bring on a panic attack.

The following 3 postures are practical solutions to engage a TEEN in ‘relaxation’, to ignite a sense of calm while toning the vagal nerve.

All of the techniques use props, which gives the ‘mind’ something else to focus on without becoming a distraction. These are tolerated well – even the most anxious teen will participate and find peace for a moment or two.

Head Hammock

  • Loop a belt – the folded belt should reach from hip to heel
  • Lie on your back with knees bent
  • Place the belt buckle at the nape of the neck, passing either side of strap behind ears
  • Put the ball of your foot in the other end and extend that leg towards the ceiling
  • Other leg can remain bent or straight depending on tightness of hamstrings or comfort
  • Hold for 3 minutes (each leg)


Supported Bridge (Chatushpadasana)

  • Lie on the floor with your knees bent
  • Lift pelvis and place one block, lengthwise across the sacrum making sure the pelvis is parallel to the floor and not tilted towards the ceiling
  • Repeat 3 times adding a block, rolling the shoulders under each time checking that the pelvis is neutral and parallel to the floor
  • With 4 blocks under the sacrum, press the upper arms to the floor, bringing chest towards chin.
  • Hold for up to 5 minutes


Alternate Nostril breathing (simplified finger position)

(explain that you will introduce the breathing pattern but that everyone breathes at a different rate)

  • Sit in a comfortable position with your back supported – could be on a chair or crossed legs with back to a wall.
  • Place the thumb of your right hand over the right nostril and the first 2 fingers over the left nostril
  • Draw right arm towards body and support the elbow with the left hand
  • Breathe in through your nose then out through your nose
  • Close the ‘thumb side’ (right nostril gently with thumb) and breathe in through the ‘finger side’.
  • Close ‘finger side’ release ‘thumb side’ and breathe out ‘thumb side’
  • Breathe in ‘thumb side’, close ‘thumb side’, release ‘finger side’ and breathe out ‘finger side’
  • Repeat around 5-10 cycles with 1 cycle being an inhalation and exhalation on both sides.

Veronica Greene founded Little Greene Yoga® and offers a Certified Children’s Teacher Training package (for 3-5yrs; 5-8yrs; 8-12yrs & Teens) www.LittleGreeneYoga.com


LGY TEEN – Mind & Body Teacher Training course is packed with practical tips to engage with teens and create a successful Teen yoga class.